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Cats can tell when speech is directed at them

A new study led by the Paris Nanterre University has found that cats may change their behavior when they hear their owner’s voice talking in a tone directed to them, but not when hearing the voice of stranger addressing them, or the voice of their owner directed at another person. These findings suggest that cats may form strong affective bonds to their owners.

Scientists have long known that human tone varies depending on who the speech is directed to, such as when talking to infants or pets versus when talking with other adults. While previous studies have shown that the tone of human speech changes when directed to cats, little has been known about how cats react to this.

Now, the researchers investigated how 16 cats reacted to pre-recorded voices from both their owners and strangers when saying phrases in cat-directed and human adult-directed tones. The scientists examined three conditions: in the first, the voice of the speaker changed from a stranger’s voice to the cat’s owner, while in the second and third, the tone of the cat’s owner and a stranger’s, respectively, changed from cat-directed to adult-directed.

In the first condition, ten out of 16 cats exhibited a decrease in behavior intensity while they heard three audio recordings of a stranger’s voice calling them by their names. When hearing their owner’s voice though, their behavior intensity significantly increased again, and the cats started displaying behaviors such as turning their ears to the speakers, moving across the room, and showing pupil dilation. According to the experts, this shift in behavior shows that cats can discriminate their owner’s voice from that of a stranger’s.

In the second experimental condition, ten cats decreased their behavior intensity when hearing audio recordings of their owner in an adult-directed tone, but significantly increased it when hearing their owner speak in a cat-directed tone. Such a change in behavior intensity was not identified in the third condition, when a stranger was speaking in either adult-directed or cat-directed tones. Thus, the cats appeared to be able to distinguish when their owner was talking in a cat-directed tone compared to an adult-directed one, but did not react differently when a stranger’s voice shifted its tone.

However, further research is needed to investigate if these findings could be replicated in the case of more socialized cats that are used to interact with strangers.

“These findings bring a new dimension to the consideration of human–cat relationship, as they imply the development of a particular communication into human–cat dyads, that relies upon experience. Our results highlight the importance of one-to-one relationships for cats, reinforcing recent literature regarding the ability for cats and humans to form strong bonds,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Animal Cognition

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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